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Gaza trip may be historic, but Clinton can't escape questions on impeachment Netanyahu has to fend off some queries from Israelis


GAZA CITY, The Gaza Strip -- He is the first American president to personally acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israelis. But in the hours before the president was to give that remarkable speech here, it wasn't peace-making or his historic trip to Gaza that preoccupied Bill Clinton.

While posing for a photograph with Yasser Arafat yesterday, the president was asked again if he would admit that he had lied in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

"I'll say what I said before. " the president responded. "I have offered to make every effort to make any reasonable compromise with the Congress. I still believe that and I'm still willing to do that. That's all I know to do.

"Meanwhile, I'm going to keep working on my job."

Since President Clinton arrived here three days ago on a mission to salvage the Middle East peace process, he has been dogged by that other process under way in Washington -- the impeachment proceedings.

First there were the right-wing protesters standing outside his hotel in Jerusalem holding signs that read: "Go Mess with Monica."

Then, after the president's first key meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Palestinian violations of the Wye River Memorandum, the first question posed to him from an Israeli journalist had nothing to do with the stalled peace process.

"Do you intend to resign as did President Nixon?" the journalist asked.

The president's political troubles at home so dominated that first session with the media that Netanyahu -- with whom Clinton has had his differences -- stepped in to try to shield him.

"The president has come here on a very clear voyage of peace and I believe that it would be appropriate also to ask one or two questions on the peace process," Netanyahu said. "I would like to know the answers too."

The president looked somber and weary Sunday as he fielded those queries. No, he would not resign. And no, he wouldn't admit to lying because he didn't perjure himself.

The obvious comparisons with Richard M. Nixon have been made here too. One television journalist mistakenly called the president Richard.

Nahum Barnea, the leading political analyst for Israel's largest-selling daily newspaper, Yediot Aharanot, wrote that despite Clinton's dejected look, the president put in a "remarkable work day" preparing for the Gaza trip and the speech he gave last night. The president seems to have taken refuge in the work he came to do here.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is traveling with the president, took note of his "apparent good spirits" despite the House committee's votes. Asked if some Republicans find the president's answers arrogant, Specter replied, "It's not that he projects arrogance. He projects obliviousness. It's a remarkable thing."

Yosef Lapid, one of Israel's well-known commentators, defended Clinton in an article for the newspaper Ma'ariv. "The American public supports Bill Clinton and wants to see the end of this embarrassing incident," Lapid wrote. "But the politicians are not prepared to give up on their game, even at the price of seriously damaging the role of the president who is supposed to be occupied with more fateful issues, like peace in our region, and not with absurd love scandals."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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